"I am interested in singing songs that move me, in a way that moves people," says Sophie Milman, a twenty-four year old jazz singer from Toronto, Canada, whose current CD Make Someone Happy, soared to the # 4 spot on Billboard’s jazz charts.
With emotionally deep, evocative vocals, combined with poise and confidence that suggests a much more seasoned artist, Sophie Milman has tantalized North American audiences, with songs such as producer Steve Mackinnon’s "Something In The Air Between Us," (co-written with Marc Jordan). Her stylish interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s "Rocket Love," is sultry, and leans ever so slightly towards pop.
Milman serves up a soulful "(It Isn’t Easy) Bein’ Green," which is one of the prettiest songs that I have listened to in 2007. Her musicians, particularly upright bassist Kieran Overs, in addition to the elegant pianist Paul Schrofel, guitarist Rob Piltch, and John Fraboni (drums), make listening to this tune, an enchanting experience.
Listening as Milman speaks, it is difficult to imagine there being a time in her life when she felt she was not accepted and did not fit in. She revealed this part of her life when talking about her deep connection with the Joe Raposo tune, "(It’s Not Easy) Bein’ Green," a song that was immortalized by Kermit the Frog.
"Songs such as "(It Isn’t Easy) Bein’ Green," are a little autobiographical, because of the type of life that I have been through. With the immigration (first from Russia to Israel, and later from Israel to Canada), I always felt like I was a bit of an outsider, so when, as an adult, I heard the song for the first time, I thought, ‘This song is really about me. I can really deliver this song,’" says Milman, "The song is truly the story of my life. I was not the popular kid in school. I sometimes say during my shows that I spent my life as the stranger looking (through a window) at the popular people, with their shiny blonde hair, playing volleyball. That is how I imagined it. They were always happy, always carefree, whereas I was the outsider. We were struggling financially for years, and I was awkward, shy, intense and dark. That doesn’t make for a very popular high school experience. When I sing the song, it is really something that I feel, and that is why it connects so well."
In response to my playful jab about it not being easy to cover a frog, Milman replies, "Yes, but it has gone over pretty well. I didn’t know what to expect when I recorded it. I didn’t go in with any expectations about what was going to connect with people (on the CD), and what was not going to connect. I don’t know how many of them had actually stopped, and thought about the song as something other than a song sung by a frog. When I sing it live, at first, they (the audience) laugh, and then they think, ‘I can’t believe she is singing Kermit the Frog’s song. The lyrics are really quite intense, so they aren’t laughing by the end of the song. People have cried. It is really interesting to me, how that song can provoke a lot of emotion. Unless they are really super connected with jazz, and know the Shirley Horn or Ray Charles versions (they will only associate it with Kermit).
For the most part, the connection with Raposo’s song mirrors how Milman feels about the other songs that appear on her album Make Someone Happy. "On this CD it was about the lyrics, which have a sharp connection to my past, or my life experiences. It is about how I interpret the world, or how I feel. I am a very intense person, so I feel things very intensely. When I hear a song that I connect with, I just go, ding, ding, ding, in my head. It’s a no brainer, and I just have to sing it," she says.
The title track "Make Someone Happy," is another song to which Milman has a deep connection, "I have been singing it for years now, but within the context of this record, it is a song that summarizes the last three years of my life. (I have been) trying to make everybody happy, starting with audiences, my professors (she is pursuing a commerce degree), and at the same time trying to figure out what it is that makes me happy. I have learned that I am a very complicated person, whether for good, or for bad. I really wanted this record to show my personality a lot more than the first (record), and it is more personal."
Considering Canada is the third country in which Milman has lived, it seems only fitting that her CD has a bit of a multicultural flavor to it. There is a nod to her Jewish heritage with Hannah Senesh’s "Eli, Eli (A Walk To Caesarea)." She also sings in French on the Cameron Wallis / Sara Latendresse tune, "Reste (Stay)." She pays tribute to a Canadian music icon Randy Bachman with her cover of the Guess Who’s hit song "Undun."
"I chose the song "Undun," for several reasons. I wanted express my love for Canada, and everything that it has done for my family and me, by choosing one Canadian song for the record. The lyrics for "Undun," appealed to me. During the past three years, there have been so many firsts, trying to become an adult, trying to become independent of my family, but at the same time remaining close, trying to go to school, trying to build a career, trying to hold together a band, and touring for the first time. All of these things came to a head. If you listen to the bridge on "Undun," it says ‘Too many mountains, and not enough stairs to climb / Too many churches and not enough truth / Too many people and not enough eyes to see / Too many lives to lead and not enough time." When I heard this section, I said, okay (this is) another one (for the record)," the singer recalls.
There are those who might consider it to be a risky proposition, early in your career, to cover a song by a band as prolific as the Guess Who. Milman however, confidently responds, "It is the same (the risk) as recording a song by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter or Ella Fitzgerald. Singing covers has always had the same risks. People say, ‘It’s been done before,’ or ‘She can’t sing it, she’s too young, she’s too old, she’s too short or she’s too tall.’ There is always an element of judgment when you don’t write your own songs, because people will say, it’s been done before, why are you doing it. When I was covering the songs for this record, there was also a risk associated with people saying, ‘She’s a jazz artist, why is she playing around with pop? How does this make any sense?’ There is always the danger of jazz audiences not connecting with the music, and thinking that I am trying to cross over. There are a thousand possible reactions to what I do. I just don’t think of that stuff. I love the songs, and they move me in the same way that some of the greatest jazz standards move me. I don’t sit around thinking about the dangers of doing this or that, because then I will be paralyzed. It’s not like I am the greatest person around, but when it becomes to creativity, and covering songs, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what (others) will say. I just do it. I have to do what feels right for me. I am not going to spend too much time thinking about how the critics are going to respond. Most importantly, the audience response (to Make Someone Happy), has been great. Ultimately, that is all that I care about.
Milman says she is not the kind of person who wears her heart on her sleeve, which makes it even more astounding that she is able to deliver vocal performances that are saturated in emotion. Feeling that she was an outsider during her high school years, Milman adopted an intense, angry exterior. She isolated herself and didn’t show much in the way of her emotional side when she was around school.
"When it came time to sing, it was a release for me. It has always been a release for me. When I would stand on stage in front of all of those kids who made me feel like an outsider, all the emotions came pouring out. For me music is very strongly related to experience. Music was always a time for my family to feel close. Music was a very central emotional element in my life. When I am singing, that is just what comes out. I am not trying to affect the way that I sing; it is just my emotions coming though the music. When I am in front of an audience, I am able to be as vulnerable as I am with my parents, my boyfriend or my brother, but not necessarily, as I would be with anyone else. I have a very special relationship with music, and that is why it comes across in such a feeling way," says Milman.
Earlier this year, Sophie Milman graced the stage of Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, in New York City, an amazing accomplishment for a twenty-four year old artist. The significance of breaking into the Big Apple and performing at prestigious venue becomes even more significant when you consider that Milman still lives in Canada, and you think about how many superbly talented female jazz vocalists reside in New York City. As this article goes to publication, Milman is touring throughout numerous states across America, in support of Make Someone Happy. You somehow get the feeling that she is just tipping on the edge of greatness.